The risk of dying from Covid is tiny, but people can't help being frightened anyway
David Spiegelhalter, the chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk at Cambridge University, suggests that the risk posed to children by Covid-19 is “tiny”, with under-15s more likely to be struck by lightning than die of the virus.
I wrote this sentence a few weeks ago for a piece in these pages and, a little while after I’d filed, I found my mind wandering back to the topic of lightning strikes.
To Google! Where I discovered that while lightning strikes are very uncommon (obviously) they are even less common now than in centuries past. This helpful page informs us that since the 1850s the number of annual lightning fatalities in England and Wales has dropped from more than twenty to just one. There are several reasons for this: fewer people are now employed in agricultural jobs which carry a higher risk, buildings are now better constructed, and medical care has vastly improved. Although there are still strange and tragic cases, such as the two women killed by lightning in Hyde Park in 1999, the data on the whole offers good news.
But the human brain is a peculiar thing. The day after my foray into lightning strike facts, there was a thunderstorm in London. I gave it an hour or two (abiding by the 30-30 rule) and got my dog ready for a walk. But as I stood on the doorstep, and for the first time in my life, the fear of being struck by lightning made me hesitate.
It was a neat little example of availability bias, a mental shortcut that makes us more likely to attach undue importance to particularly recent or frightening events. It was what made me hesitate on my doorstep, and it is also certainly at play in public attitudes towards the Covid-19 crisis. But while my increased fear of lightning strikes, provoked by watching too many scary YouTube videos, was fleeting and trivial, the public fear of Covid-19 is far more concerning.
This survey report gives a taste of the power of availability bias. Covid-19 is of course both novel and potentially dangerous, and so some degree of fear is appropriate, particularly for people in high-risk groups. But, according to this survey, the average member of the UK public has a wholly disproportionate understanding of the risks, estimating (incredibly) that 7% of the UK population has already died from the virus. If true, that would translate to roughly 4.5million people: one hundred times greater than the true figure.
But can you really blame members of the public for getting the numbers so wildly wrong? ‘Unprecedented’ government restrictions on our movements, combined with months of non-stop and highly emotive media coverage, are the perfect recipe for increasing the perception of risk.
It’s worth remembering the warping effect of the availability bias as we enter a period of further restrictions today. It is possible that we’re on the brink of a second wave. But in a country of 67 million people, the daily death toll remains tiny, with an uptick of just 3 deaths on Monday to 30 on Tuesday. And that’s exactly the kind of risk level that our minds are mostly poorly suited to assessing.